Teaching ethical education at second-level
Teacher Jean Ryan of Ballymakenny College reflects on her first year teaching Ethical Education.
“This time last year I was introduced to the idea of teaching Ethical Education in Secondary School. It was going to be a new course for the teachers and for the students – with plenty of adjustments to be made during the year as we watched the course grow and develop. We started out with a bare framework and some guidelines as to what the course would entail and we ended up with some very rich and rewarding lesson plans.
Starting out in September, I did what so many of us do nowadays and I turned to Google. What would teaching Ethical Education entail? What was Ethics? In the words of Potter Stewart – “Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do.” Could we help our students to see that just because they could – didn’t mean that they should?
We wanted the Ethical Education programme in our school to help our students to think differently; to help our students grow up as respectful global citizens; to teach them about making moral choices and having a value system as a basis for their decision making. We would challenge them to ask themselves some difficult questions. What did they value? Who did they respect? How do they cope in hard times?
Throughout the year I was fortunate enough to attend training sessions that really helped in the development of the Ethical Education Programme in the school. The Equality Authority of Ireland ran teacher in-service that focused on equality issues in Ireland today. This provided me with ample materials that challenged my student’s perceptions of others and their stereotypical beliefs.
When asked to do an exercise in which they put themselves in the shoes of another, it was illuminating to see their reaction to the life experiences others can have and they clearly expressed an understanding of how unequal society can be. Insights I gained through further trainings with Pavee Point and BeLonG To Youth Services opened my eyes, and subsequently those of my students, to the diversity in our society and the opportunities that exist for us in embracing and celebrating that diversity.
While we had no final exam to our Ethical Education Programme last year, the success of our programme was evident when we discussed the Marriage Referendum. What surprised all the teachers was the level of empathy that students showed. They agreed that while the decision may not impact on their lives directly, it could impact on their brothers, sisters, friends, or their own future sons and daughters. They understood that the referendum gives people great power to influence the future of our country and that with this power comes great responsibility. They hoped that the unequal society we had encountered in previous lessons could be changed for future generations.
As we start into another year of our Ethical Education Programme, I hope that we will continue to challenge our students with the really fundamental questions about how they should live their lives. When we talk about someone as ‘well-educated’, we are normally defining this in terms of their ability to perform in examinations. As we work on developing our Ethical Education Programme, I think that we will be changing that definition. We will be speaking about their honesty, their ability to show empathy, their ability to make good moral decisions and their decency as a human being.
Jean Ryan, Teacher, Ballymakenny College
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